THAI SPRING ROLL (1512 Queen West, at Fuller, 416-532-2877) Twenty years after the fact, Thai and Malay food finally comes to Parkdale. This offshoot of the Friendly Thai group offers fiery mains with many vegetarian options in evocative DIY digs set to the hippest electro soundtrack in town. Complete dinners for $10 per person ($8 at lunch), including all taxes and tip. Open daily 11 am to midnight. Unlicensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
there's more to the dining ex-
perience than what's happening on plates and the attitude, or lack thereof, of the person delivering them to table. Setting counts, including comfortable chairs, art on the wall and simple things like linen versus paper napkins and appropriate cutlery. But the subtlest detail of all, the one that can make or break a restaurant, is the one most often overlooked -- music.
Think of a favourite Italian-trattoria night out and replace Dean Martin's crooning with Mariah Carey's bellowing. Or imagine an Indian nosh accompanied by the not so soothing sounds of Limp Bizkit instead of melodramatic Bollywood show tunes. It's enough to put you off your feed. Most restaurateurs take more time choosing salt 'n' pepper shakers than they do suitable dinner music. How else explain the all-pervasiveness of those damned Gipsy Kings?
This culinary conundrum comes to mind during the first five minutes of my initial visit to six-week-old Thai Spring Roll, an above-average Southeast Asian spot on the Parkdale frontier. Though I'm intently studying its lineup of Thai and Malaysian mains and starters, my tapping feet and nodding head recognize the tune playing at a discreet volume over the sound system before I do.
Why, it's Kinobe's Slip Into Something More Comfortable, an obscure track from a Jockey Slut compilation that mixes laid-back Martin Denny exotica with the sounds of restful cresting waves. And you can dance to it.
The song sets the mood perfectly, matching the room's tropical mix of bamboo, grass mats and romantic lighting. All that's missing is a flickering tiki or two. The CD player continues to shuffle through Beth Orton, Talvin Singh and the Supreme Beings of Leisure. Sure, it's stuff the hipsters who haunt Lava and XXX Diner heard months ago, but this is an unassuming Thai restaurant in Parkdale. I'm impressed.
And by the menu, too. (If you like, ask for the purely vegetarian menu.) If it looks familiar, that's because it's exactly the same as the selection at the Friendly Thai's three locations. (Chef and co-owner K.P. Lee is part of the group that owns all four eateries.)
We start with the Thai Spring Roll appetizer plate ($11.95), a tasty introduction easily split by two or more that includes four skewered shrimp satay on a leaf-lettuce bed alongside piquant green mango salad, barely breaded calamari rings, cold rice-paper-wrapped spring rolls stuffed with shredded carrot, deep-fried tofu and mint, as well as deep-fried versions filled with diced chicken and cellophane noodles.
At lunch, we follow with Thai street noodle soup ($4.95 with spring roll or salad), a fabulous spicy lemon-grass-scented broth rich with chicken, quartered button mushrooms and fresh wide rice noodles. Tom Kha Gai ($5.95) 86s the noodles but adds coconut milk, gingery galangal, lime leaves and minced bird chilies to this already ambrosial soup.
Everybody does pad thai, but here it's a lovely lemony tangle of rice noodles, chicken strips, exactly two tail-on shrimp, scrambled egg and extra-firm tofu "steak," all garnished with crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, Thai basil and green-onion tops. Even better, the curried rendition (both $7.95 and available meat-free) replaces standard ketchup with pungent Singapore spicing.
Phad Ma-Khua ($7.45) sees fiery electric-blue eggplant contrast with red pepper in a thick, tart sauce. Peppers appear again in mango tofu ($8.95), an appealing combo of large wedges of fruit, bean curd and sweet bell peppers.
On the Malaysian side of the menu, the famed Balinese salad gado-gado ($4.95) forgoes traditional potatoes for rice vermicelli but keeps its deep-fried tofu nuggets, carrots, canned baby corn, broccoli, cauliflower, iceberg lettuce shards and bok choy topped with pink and green shrimp chip "croutons" and citrusy peanut dressing.
Chicken curry ($8.95) positively explodes with thermonuclear blasts of mustard seed, cumin and garam-masala-infused coconut gravy ladled over a jasmine rice timbale and a side of chili-spiked Yam Yai salad. Sop up any leftovers with an 18-inch round Malay roti ($1.50).
As much as we like the grilled shrimp in the appetizer platter, combination satay ($15.95) disappoints. The pieces are served with steamed rice, an inconsequential soy-sauced stir-fry of carrot, broccoli, cauliflower and a chili-flecked peanut dipping sauce, and some are quite good (tofu, lamb, beef and chicken, shrimp), but fake crab and calamari taste too fishy. And if the menu hadn't told us what it is, the eggplant could be some bland lasagna-like thing.
Generally, the Malaysian dishes are weaker than the Thai -- odd, since chef Lee's Malay.
Still, Thai Spring Roll shakes Parkdalian booty. Until April 15, TSR offers discount coupons for 20 per cent off on pickup or dine-in orders, 10 per cent off delivery, or free tofu satay with a pickup or delivery over $20, and free pad thai over $30. Now that's worth dancing about!